Birds of Prey Stumbles – What May Have Contributed to the Stumble

Posted: February 10, 2020 in Entertainment, Life, Movies, News, Politics

Birds of Prey

Okay… So, Birds of Prey...
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The film, which should probably at least be jogging out of the starting gate, is stumbling out of the gate on its opening weekend. The originally reported studio projections for the film was an opening weekend of around $55 million. They were expecting it to do at least Shazam numbers id not better. As the release got closer and they started getting a feel for where everything was tracking, they downgraded that to expecting around $45 million. By Saturday morning, the projections for its domestic box office take was being discussed as around $35 million. It’s actually just under that right now, but I suspect it will come out a little above $35 million by the time the Sunday adjusted totals post tomorrow. 
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Well, there’s already the start of the usual chatter. The film, of course, stumbled because the toxic fanboys refuse to go see it. Also, of course, men just won’t go see action films with female leads. Additionally, there’s the growing chatter about feminism, fighting sexism, girl power, misogyny, etc. while talking about intimidated little fanboys. 
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And, honestly, I don’t think all of that was even 20% of the film’s problems this weekend. Well, one aspect of that was probably a bigger issue for the film, but not in the way it’s being discussed by many.
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General observations over the last few years and specific observations pertaining to this film’s run-up to the box office tend to indicate- to me at least -the following hurdles this film tripped over before it even had the chance to stumble out of the gate. 
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#1- Look, it’s a DC film. DC has not been hitting on all cylinders with its film output this last decade. When it comes to box office- especially the domestic box office -they haven’t been the big hit machine that Marvel has been. Truth be told, Marvel hasn’t consistently been a big hit machine at the domestic box office over the last ten-plus years of the MCU, but they’ve got better PR. Outside of hardcore fandom, the DC films just don’t seem to generate the buzz of “Must See in Theaters” that the MCU films have more successfully done.
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That issue is not helped by #2.
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#2- The ad campaign sucked. 
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No, really. The ad campaign sucked. 
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Oh, sure, we all loved the first trailers that dropped. You know, those of us plugged neck-deep into geekdom and up on who everyone in the trailers was and with a solid idea of their comic book bios and histories. But, you wanna know something? We don’t represent the majority of the casual movie-going audience. 
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This is a whole other discussion topic in and of itself, but, short version… You know how we go to conventions and see panels where someone- a fan panelist or even a geek celebrity panelist -will announce that the geeks have taken over the world or at least the pop culture world? And, of course, everyone agrees and cheers because look at what the big box office winners have been of late. But, the truth is we really haven’t. It’s just that the studios have figured out how to monetize us. The vast majority of the casual movie-going audience is still made up out of people who don’t think of themselves as geeks and aren’t neck-deep in fandom.
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I get a lot of personal experience with that. I leave events and conventions where I’m not in the top 50% of the geekiest people there and return to the workaday world where I stand out like a sore thumb. I’m considered THE department geek not only by the people I work with but also by a large number of the many people I’ve regularly encountered and gotten to know in and around the area I work in. As a result, I get a lot of “Hey, what is this thing?” questions whenever something geek related is poking its head up over the pop culture landscape. I got quite a bit of that with this movie three or four weeks back as the ad campaign got a little more noticeable. 
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A lot of people who were seeing the ad campaign for this never read the comics. A lot of people who were seeing the ad campaign for this never watched the Batman series that introduced Harley Quinn. A lot of people who were seeing the ad campaign for this never even saw Suicide Squad. They recognized the film was a geek thing, a superhero-related thing, and they kind of, sort of recognized the character (Harley) who (as one person I know put it when asking me about the film) looked like a clown. They had no idea who anyone else was, what the actual plot was, or why they should care.
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If you don’t know who these characters are or that “Mr. J” is the Joker, the two official trailers most people saw don’t give you a clear idea of what this film is. This is the actual general idea of the film several people that I talked to who weren’t neck-deep in the geek but who might have liked the film got from the trailers. The main character is the psychotic, criminal ex of the main villain we see in the trailers. They break up, she gets even for the breakup by blowing his stuff up, he gets even for her blowing stuff up by trying to kill her, she recruits some gang members and lawyer who get comic book code names, and they all start fighting each other over (essentially) the escalating breakup. 
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Now, if some stranger had written that on the internet I might have thought them a bit stupid. But, I know the people who said the things along these lines. They’re not stupid people. So, I decided to look at the trailers again with the mindset of not knowing as much as I do about the characters and actually looking at what the trailers give out about the story. Sure enough, if you don’t know the characters, that is kind of how they can come across. The trailers make the film come across as a story where there are no real “good guy” characters and the two main psychotic villain protagonists are trying to kill each other over their breakup. It looks like it could be the supervillain version of 1989’s The War of the Roses without the subtlety and charm. That’s not going to pull in an audience. If My Super Ex-Girlfriend taught us nothing else, it taught us that audiences don’t flock to films about superpowered people getting crazy/psychotic over a breakup.
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Yes, this is an established property. However, it’s not one with the overall popular culture recognition of many other superhero properties. They put together an ad campaign directed at people who knew who Harley was before Suicide Squad, who saw Suicide Squad, and who thought she was the best part of Suicide Squad. Not entirely a bad idea, but one that should have been accompanied by a lot more promotional material that treated this like it was an original property people haven’t seen before and gave people more information on who and what they were looking at. Because, for all intents and purposes, this was no different than an original property never before seen by a lot of the casual movie-going audiences that are needed to make a movie a box office hit. But they didn’t do that. They then committed the additional ad materials sin of not even crafting the movie’s promotional materials to create any real story hook that would snag most of that casual movie-going audience.
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#3- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
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That’s a really stupid title. It looks like the type of gag title people give fake films when they’re joking about Hollywood doing stupid things. But it’s stupid for a more important reason than that. Again, it only makes sense to the hardcore geeks.
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Compounding that problem? Doing a little fast Google research might not have helped get people into the theaters. Which brings us to #4.
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#4- I realized when talking to some of these people in early January that I didn’t really know enough about the film’s plot and concept to tell them more than (A) Ewan McGregor’s character is not the character Margot Robbie’s character broke up with, (B) general information on this version of Harley, and (C) what comic characters the other characters in the trailer were based on and who, at least in the comics, they were supposed to be. But I realized I hadn’t seen anything myself that gave me enough of an idea to offer them a solid hook to make it seem worth going to the theaters to see this thing.
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Well, welcome to the internet and Google. Because I was working and didn’t have a lot of time to stand there and research and then explain, I just told a lot of people the first two or three days to Google the movie and read up on it. And I’m sure a lot of people who didn’t talk to me were turning to Google or the search engine of their choice to find out more if they were so inclined to put in the effort. When I had the downtime and did that with someone, I discovered that this might not be the best way to get people in the theaters. 
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I’m sure if you Google the film right now, the first few pages will be hundreds of hits about this weekend’s box office performance. Do you know what you got if you Googled it about three or four weeks back? You got a lot of hits with various media sites putting up headlines about how this was the great feminist movie that Hollywood and superheroes needed. You got some hits with various media sites posting articles about how this film was the antidote to Hollywood’s testosterone-filled superhero films. You got lots with various people connected to the film talking about its great progressive social movement qualities. 
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You know what were the slim pickings in the hits? Articles and interviews selling the film based on the merits of its story as entertainment. And, as a lot of the hits were covering an interview with Ewan McGregor, you got a lot of headlines and articles that didn’t even try to sell the movie as entertainment. It was 100% this being the social movement movie you need to go see. 
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And the Ewan McGregor interview articles that were at the top of the hits really came across that way in a big way. There’s McGregor being quoted talking about how happy and proud he is to be in a great feminist movie. There’s McGregor being quoted talking about how one of the really great things about this movie is it takes head-on the topics of toxic masculinity, misogyny, mansplaining, and how badly men treat women in society. Oh, and it’s not just the big stuff like what the villains do. It has a lot of dialogue about how men treat women badly in lots of little ways every day and makes it clear to men that those days are over. 
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Okay…
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Look, I’m not one of the “Go Woke, Go Broke” people. I am on most social and political issues far closer to the people who want this movie to succeed than I am any of the toxic troll crowds and detractors of the film. So, bear with me as I say this next bit. A lot of the people associated with this film, a lot of other people in Hollywood right now, and a lot of the people who have championed various other films over the last few years and this one this weekend are turning into their own worst enemies. Because, whether they want to face the fact of this or not, a lot of those people are working as hard as they can to make the “Go Woke, Go Broke” people look like spot-on, brilliant prophets.
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Here’s the reality of the world we live in. There are people on the far left, people on the far right, and a sizable chunk of people in between those two points. A lot of those people are what we consider the middle of the road in politics. A good chunk of that middle does lean left on many social issues these days. 
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Here’s another reality of the world we live in that cuts across every one of those groups. We’re all working a lot. We almost all have limited free time and limited funds when it comes to how much is out there we want to do when we’re not working. When someone has been busting their backside at work all week, dealing with various other life issues on top of that, and looking forward to doing something fun on the weekend, the thing they want most of all out of a movie is to be entertained. They want to know that they’re going to get a good, entertaining return on their investment.
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Depending on where you are, you can spend $20 to $25 on a basic presentation movie ticket, popcorn, and a drink. Do an Imax or 3D ticket, that’s closer to $45 or $50 for just one person. Is the movie showing close to where you live? How far is the drive? How much gas are you going to use and how much time out of your day are the drive and the movie? Is the theater showing the film near some other place you want/need to go that day? Is there another film that better works for your schedule that day? Is dinner followed by Netflix and chill a better entertainment option this weekend? Yes, people think about these things. Some people more so than other people, but everyone calculates most of that stuff in their thinking to some degree or another.
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Most people when they invest their time and money in an evening at the movies want first and foremost to see something they think they’ll enjoy. They want, for that investment, what they think will be a better than even chance of walking out of the theater feeling like they were entertained.
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Honestly, and I say this as someone who agrees with most all of the social positions being discussed by people associated with the film, it’s very easy to see how people- both men and women in the casual movie-going audiences -can look at the last month or so of promotion around this film and see it as a lecture or a sermon. Do you know what lectures and sermons are not typically viewed as? They are not typically viewed by most people as either fun or entertaining.
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And, no, I’m not saying that politics and/or social issues need to stay out of pop culture entertainment. I generally roll my eyes at the people who rant on about how politics and social issues need to stay out of their comics or books or movies or (big eye roll) Star Trek because it has no place there. I frequently wonder if the people saying that have actually ever watched/read the stuff they’re talking about as most speculative fiction has a long history of being socially and politically progressive. By “progressive” here, I don’t mean left-leaning (although much of it can be seen that way looking back on it today) but rather ahead of the curve a bit when it comes to that cultural, social, and political norms of their time. Politics and social issues in comics? We called that X-Men when I was growing up. Hell, the original years of Superman would have in many ways made him a Democratic Socialist’s wet dream these days. It’s always been there.
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What’s getting lost as an art and what a lot of people need to figure out is there are better ways to do it. Recently, it feels as if Hollywood and others are trying to be as hamfisted about it and practically beating everyone over the head with telling them how great and wonderful and, yes, “woke” both they and their art is and how much you better listen up to their art’s sermon if you want to be a good person. Okay, not everyone is that bad but some are certainly getting there. I’m sorry, but most people are not going to want to show up for what’s being promoted as a 90-minute sermon on social issues even if they agree with the point of view of the one giving the sermon.
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What a bunch of people need to figure out is how to focus once again on the story and the merits of the entertainment value. Focus on creating a good story. Create something that people are going to watch and enjoy and maybe come back and watch again. Then, when you have that part taken care of, that’s when you work on adding your message into the story. But, again, not in a hamfisted way. The best examples of mixing social or political messages into entertainment are often the ones where people don’t (for whatever reason) realize what they’ve actually seen until some time after they’ve seen it. People enjoy a story and identify with characters and see the right and wrong in actions in the story and, then, sometime later, something sparks realization and the wheels start turning. 
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Usually works a lot better than hamfistedly smacking them over the head with the message or seeming to make a promise that you will when they sit down in the theater.
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And tone down trying to impress everyone on how “woke” and “progressive” you and your project is before it even hits the screen. Push the merits of the entertainment and the story first. Get them into the theaters first. You can’t do any good preaching a sermon to an empty house no matter how good or correct the sermon. Wait a week or three after it hits the screens. Wait until the various social commentators start opining on the various things they think they see in your project. Then use that opening in interviews to start discussing it. 
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Men and women are taking a pass on a lot of the movies of late that are being pushed as and/or turned into mostly social movement moments instead of entertainment.  Men and women both. It’s not just men taking a pass on them. The box office wouldn’t be as bad as some of the films have seen if it was ONLY a chunk of the male audiences staying home.
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And, while it hasn’t been as prevalent so far surrounding this film as it has been around some other TV and movie moments over the last few years, I’ll add one last bit.
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#5- A chunk of people out there who think they’re supporting and championing some of these movie and TV projects that find themselves becoming movement moments? You need to step back, reassess, and tone it down a notch or ten. Why, because, frankly, some of you are becoming every bit the example of toxic fandom that the idiot toxic trolls attacking these projects are. You’re starting to become one of the factors in creating the environment that pushes some people away from some of these projects.
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And I can say all of this with a fair amount of confidence that it’s closer to true than not true because I know a lot of people- both men and women and absolutely not close to being far-right trolls -who are starting to get tired of Hollywood hamfistedly trying to beat them over the head with movement of the moment.
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As for me personally?
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Well, I want to see the film. I couldn’t this weekend for a variety of reasons, but plan to try to see it next weekend when I have more than one day off and won’t have as much stuff on my plate. My interest in seeing it has actually gone up because of several people I know and trust the opinions of having seen it and said it’s a good movie and various people connected to it (especially McGregor) were laying it on a bit thick while preening and posing and trying to look good to what they view as the right crowd.
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I’m also hoping that the word I’m hearing is the word others are hearing. I’m hoping the movie either sees a nice bounce in the second weekend or at least has slowly spreading word of mouth keeping it in the top five for a fair amount of time rather than dropping out of the top ten in a few weekends. 
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